Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 1998; 373pp.
Kings College London
Date accessed: 18 June, 2021
Recent years have seen a blossoming of secondary literature on medieval queens and queenship, a development which owes much to the impetus provided by Pauline Stafford’s path-breaking study, Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages (1983). Several essay collections, including J. C. Parsons ed., Medieval Queenship (1993) and A. J. Duggan ed., Queens and Queenship in Medieval Europe (1997), have shed light on the changing religious and secular imagery, rituals and experiences that touched and shaped the lives of queens in Western Europe and beyond in the early, central and later Middle Ages. These have been accompanied by a number of biographical works, with the careers of several medieval English queens undergoing valuable reassessments (see J. C. Parsons, Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England (1995) and P. Stafford, Queen Emma and Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England (1997)). In the light of all this scholarly activity, Margaret Howell’s thought-provoking study of King Henry III’s queen, Eleanor of Provence: Queenship in Thirteenth-Century England, has come as a welcome, timely and much-needed addition. Until now this most remarkable queen consort has not only lacked a biography but she has also received far less than her fair share of attention from thirteenth-century specialists. This is a curious oversight when one considers the political upheavals of Henry III’s reign and the important contribution made by Eleanor and her Savoyard relations to the factional rivalries that divided his court.
Howell’s highly accessible work, divided into twelve chapters, guides the reader through Eleanor’s life, from her first experiences as a young bride in a foreign land (Eleanor was twelve at the time of her marriage to a man sixteen years her senior), to her development into a physically and politically mature king’s wife and queen mother. What becomes immediately apparent to the reader is that this study is the result of a tremendous amount of research. As well as taking on board the latest developments in thirteenth-century political and social history, the author utilises a vast quantity of unpublished source material, most notably Eleanor’s letters (of which 160 survive) and her wardrobe accounts, thereby allowing the reader to come closer to Eleanor of Provence than to any earlier queen of England. Chapter 1 begins by placing Eleanor firmly within the context of her natal family (her father was Count Raymond-Berengar V of Provence and her mother Beatrice of Savoy), considering the social setting and cultural influences of her childhood. Howell then moves on swiftly to examine the European political background to Henry III and Eleanor’s marriage, which followed two failed proposals by Henry to daughters of Leopold of Austria and Peter of Dreux, count of Brittany, and another set of abortive negotiations for the hand of Joan, heiress-apparent of Ponthieu. Howell deals subtly with the swings and roundabouts of thirteenth-century European alliances and carefully measures the disadvantages and advantages of the match. Henry III and Eleanor were married at Canterbury on 14 January 1236.
Undoubtedly the strongest theme throughout this book is family. Both Eleanor and her husband possessed a strong sense of personal loyalty to their respective blood-relatives. More often than not this bound them together but it could also be divisive. Eleanor of Provence’s arrival in England was accompanied by an influx of her Savoyard relations, most notably her maternal uncles, for whom Eleanor was to emerge as a figurehead and who were to provide her with valuable political and emotional support. Howell is careful to acknowledge that Eleanor and her kinfolk’s participation in court affairs was dependent on Eleanor’s standing in Henry’s favour. Her status as queen was, after all, dependent on her husband’s office and as queen consort she did not possess any independent, constitutionally-defined duties of her own.
Personal relationships and personalities mattered in determining Eleanor’s access to and exercise of power. There is something far more sophisticated about Howell’s politically-active Eleanor of Provence, securing for her Savoyard kinfolk advantageous English marriages, than the sometimes meddlesome mother-in-law portrayed in Parsons’ Eleanor of Castile. This is clearly something that Henry III’s Poitevin half-brothers appreciated: when they came into competition with the Savoyards over royal patronage, they directed their enmity against the queen (p. 55). Yet when this competition for resources erupted into violence in November 1252, Henry III vented his anger at his wife, who temporarily lost control of the queen’s gold and was packed off to Winchester (pp. 66-67). Howell’s treatment of this incident is sympathetic and conveys the dependence of Eleanor’s position on the king’s goodwill. Nevertheless, one feels that slightly more should have been made of the potential restriction placed on the scope of thirteenth-century queenship by the king’s ultimate control of both his wife’s wealth and her level of contact with his officials. Even a queen, who as his legitimate bedfellow shared unique moments of intimacy with her husband, was vulnerable to the vagaries of the king’s temper. Indeed the relationship between husband and wife emerges as the most influential force in determining the course of Eleanor’s life.
Eleanor’s chief responsibility as queen was essentially private and domestic. As a wife she was expected to bear children, especially male children, thereby continuing the royal lineage. This was certainly an expectation that Eleanor fulfilled: the future Edward I, the first of her two sons and three daughters, was born in 1239. Motherhood offered a queen, as a consort, an enhanced sense of security, a means of buttressing her position in her husband’s affections. Howell demonstrates a canny understanding of its importance for Eleanor’s position and does not go too far in describing it as Eleanor’s ‘ultimate strength’ (p. 109). Eleanor’s appointment as regent (aided by Richard of Cornwall’s counsel) in 1253-1254, the arrangements for Edward’s Castilian marriage, the transfer to him of his appanage, and the generous provisions in Henry’s will (which stipulated that Eleanor would receive custody of all their children, including the heir to the throne, together with Wales, Ireland, Gascony and England on his death) all underlined the significance and potential of her maternity. Howell is right to see Henry’s choice of Eleanor as regent as evidence that he appreciated her talents and, above all, regarded her with trust. Henry’s judgement was clearly not misplaced; Eleanor was regent for ten months and appears as an effective and energetic figure, who ‘kept her finger on government’ (p. 117) in spite of a pregnancy and lying-in (although a daughter, Katherine, was born on 25 November 1253, writs were again being issued per reginam by 5 December, pp. 117-118). Even so, a discussion of contemporaries’ reactions to Eleanor’s appointment as regent, and the information this reveals about their perceptions regarding the boundaries of queenship, would also have been useful here.
Howell shows that Eleanor of Provence was active in the interests of her children. Most pronounced of all was her involvement in the highly expensive and deeply unpopular scheme to secure the crown of Sicily for her second son, Edmund. Her pursuit of a policy for peace with France is represented as a necessary precondition both for this and Edward’s security in Gascony. There were other, personal reasons as well; although her sister Sanchia had married Henry III’s brother, Richard earl of Cornwall, her sister Margaret was wife to the French king Louis IX and another sister, Beatrice, had married Charles count of Anjou. All four women and their mother, the dowager countess of Provence, were present at the meeting at Paris in 1254 between Henry III and Louis IX (pp. 136-138). Yet Howell finds it only ‘incidentally interesting that the family structure which underlay the 1254 meeting depended on a group of five women’ (p. 138). Surely it is something much more than this. The full significance of this event lies in the insight which it provides into the role of royal and aristocratic women as both symbols and agents for reconciliation, as peaceweavers who crossed cultural and political divides. Unlike queens Emma and Edith who told their stories through fathers, husbands and sons in The Encomium of Queen Emma and The Life of King Edward who Rests at Westminster (Stafford, Queen Emma, p. 51), Eleanor of Provence’s story would clearly have incorporated mothers, sisters and daughters as well.
Howell carefully admits that Eleanor’s relationship with her eldest son was not always plain sailing. As Edward matured and began to choose his own friends in the late 1250s, he moved into the rival Lusignan orbit and towards Henry III’s brother-in-law, the reformer Simon de Montfort. Howell also traces the hardening of Eleanor’s attitude against the reform movement itself in the autumn of 1259, highlighting how the Provisions of Westminster’s clause on queen’s gold touched directly on Eleanor’s financial interests. It is interesting to observe this alien queen playing an instrumental role in helping Henry III to recruit a force of foreign knights in the spring of 1260. Howell has uncovered evidence that Eleanor had been nurturing useful Flemish contacts: the manner in which Isabella de Fiennes, the wife of an Anglo-Flemish knight, was given a number of rings to pass onto Flemish lords and ladies by the queen when she left England in 1259 (p. 168), is particularly striking. More might have been made of this as well. Throughout the book one continually catches other similar glimpses of this private, behind-the-scenes, female networking but this informal feminine avenue to power is never rendered fully explicit nor examined for its own sake. This is a strange and serious shortcoming. Notwithstanding, the author is perceptive in her observation that Eleanor’s close association with foreign military men probably harmed the queen’s reputation and helped to concentrate xenophobic reactions on her person (p. 168).
It is Eleanor’s involvement in the political turmoil of the 1260s that really marks her out, in Howell’s account, as a player at the centre of the political stage. The argument that the revolution of 1263 was very much ‘a rebellion focused on the queen and her policies’ (p. 194) is certainly persuasive. Yet this did not prevent Eleanor from playing a key diplomatic role in working towards a royal recovery, accompanying Henry III to France in September 1263 so that Louis IX might mediate between themselves and the baronial dissidents. Once more one gains an impression of female networking which is not developed, this time between two queens, Eleanor and her sister Margaret, who actively tried to enlist the support of third parties, including Louis’ brother Alphonse of Poitiers, for the English king (p. 200).
By remaining in France when Henry III and Edward returned to England in October 1263, Eleanor remained free to promote her husband’s and son’s interests, and later played an influential role in determining Louis’ judgement at Amiens. After the battle of Lewes (14 May 1264) left Henry and Edward little more than captives in Montfort’s hands, Eleanor exercised authority in Gascony, employed diplomatic pressure on England’s new government and, above all, planned, financed and gathered an invasion force. Howell offers a thought-provoking explanation as to why it was that this force, which sufficiently worried the baronial government for them to respond by mustering an army on Barham Down, never invaded: the papal legate, whose involvement had been sought by King Louis, Queen Margaret and Queen Eleanor, opposed this course of action (p. 219). This is an important consideration. Howell argues that Eleanor was anxious to avoid a ‘bloody slaughter’ and cites a letter written by the queen’s uncle, Peter of Savoy, which suggests that he believed that peace was a real possibility (p. 219). By October 1264, when the negotiations had broken down, Eleanor had also run out of money to pay for her soldiers. This is highly convincing stuff. Howell is also anxious to stress that Eleanor’s political importance was in no way diminished on her return to England on 29 October 1265, three months after the royalist victory at Evesham. Eleanor entertained foreign dignitaries, secured financial assistance for the Crown from the papacy, guarded former rebels at Windsor Castle and helped her second son to purchase the marriage of Aveline, heiress to the Aumale and Devon earldoms, from Aveline’s two female guardians (networking with women again and in a typically gendered context!).
Perhaps the biggest turning point in Eleanor’s life, second only to her marriage to Henry III, was her transformation into a queen dowager on Henry’s death on 16 November 1272. Eleanor survived her husband by almost twenty years, after fourteen of which she became "a humble nun of the order of Fontevrault of the convent of Amesbury" (p. 287). Sadly her subsequent life is allotted only twenty-five pages of Howell’s study. This is rather disappointing, especially as most of Eleanor’s correspondence survives from this time. Moreover, what Howell does reveal, about Eleanor’s preoccupation with her resources and her entrance to Amesbury, leaves one thirsting for more.
Margaret Howell’s study of Eleanor of Provence provides more than an insight into Eleanor’s family relationships, and her political concerns and preoccupations, vital though these are to an understanding of Eleanor’s role as a queen consort. Chapter 4 offers a detailed examination of the queen’s lifestyle, recreating an impression of the physical and cultural settings in which she lived and moved. Eleanor’s piety followed her husband’s lead and joined husband and wife together: she readily identified with Henry III’s feelings for the cult of Edward the Confessor and, like her husband, was a great patron of the friars, turning to three Franciscans, Adam Marsh, Thomas of Hales and William Batale, for personal spiritual advice. Eleanor’s accounts for 1252-1253 support Howell’s assertion that her children were ‘her constant preoccupation’ (p. 99); she spent two-thirds of that year in residence at Windsor, near her children, enjoying unrestricted access to them. Indeed a real (and heartening) affection seems to have developed between mother and offspring, which endured into their adulthood; in 1260, her daughter Margaret, queen of Scotland, gave birth to her first child in England at Windsor (pp. 102-103).
Perhaps the most puzzling feature of Howell’s book is the absence of any discussion of gender and its influence on queenship, unlike both Stafford’s and Parsons’ recent works. The concept of gender is central to an understanding of what it was that distinguished women from men and queenship from kingship. It throws a useful and valid perspective onto male attitudes and reactions towards women, especially powerful, aristocratic and royal women, thereby imbuing male and female interaction at all social levels with an added significance. Stafford’s study of queens Emma and Edith, for example, is careful to draw attention to the manner in which becoming a queen consort did not, in the same way as did becoming a king, transform a person’s status forever. The roles of queen consort and queen dowager were intricately intertwined with and indeed governed by the female lifecycle; they were extensions of the gendered roles of wife, mother and widow. The adoption of such an approach by Howell would have allowed her to consider more fully what it is that Eleanor of Provence’s life and career reveals about the experience of being female in thirteenth-century England.
One should not be too judgmental, for Howell does, after all, devote an entire chapter (Chapter 11) to the subject of queenship, its image, practice and resources, and places Henry III’s wife firmly within this context. She examines the relevance of Marian, biblical and literary symbolism for Eleanor of Provence’s style of queenship and considers the influence of another popular queenly image, one shaped ‘by the personalities and achievements of real queens’ (p. 260), that of the highly capable and competent woman whom chroniclers described as a virago. Howell is at her most impressive when she dismisses the view that by the thirteenth century, English queenship was undergoing irreversible decline. In Howell’s words, ‘it was the form and style which changed’ (p. 261), a view shared by L. L. Huneycutt in her article on the ‘Images of Queenship in the High Middle Ages’ (The Haskins Society Journal, 1989, pp. 61-71). Howell’s challenge to Facinger’s thesis, based on the French evidence, that the queen’s removal to a household separate from the king’s in the twelfth century distanced the queen from power in government, is particularly convincing. Eleanor of Provence’s household certainly provided her with a unique form of power base in the factional rivalries between the Lusignans and Savoyards. Moreover, Eleanor was still close to the centre of government, close to the king, and enjoyed personal contacts with the chancery, exchequer and judiciary.
At the end of the day, one is firmly compelled to agree with the conclusion that ‘English queenship in the thirteenth century had great potential, but not for the passive or the incompetent’ (p. 286). Margaret Howell’s carefully researched volume has finally allowed Eleanor of Provence to emerge as one of the most important and dominating figures in English political life during her husband’s reign. Thirteenth-century specialists take note, for a good deal of revision is now urgently required.
The reviewer of Eleanor of Provence must at times have been troubled by a justified assumption that the author herself had read many books which made frequent use of the terms 'gender' 'female lifecycle', 'female networking', 'peaceweavers' and the like. Was the reviewer then faced with a casual neglect of the correct terminology or an actual failure to grasp concepts? Either way, clearly all was not well. Two criticisms of my book stand out. 'Perhaps the most puzzling feature of Howell's book is the absence of any discussion of gender and its influence on queenship', she writes, and she rightly refers me to the works of Pauline Stafford and John Parsons. I must re-assure her that I have in fact read much of the work of both these-scholars, with close attention, with appreciation, and I trust with profit to my own reflections. Indeed, my personal debt to John Parsons for sharing his incomparable knowledge of thirteenth-century queens is acknowledged in my Preface. The reviewer also notes that 'female networking ... is never rendered fully explicit nor examined for its own sake. This is a strange and serious shortcoming'. So be it; she will certainly not be alone in that opinion. But there is another point of view.
The enrichment of our understanding of the part played by women of power in the Middle Ages, through substantial writing over the last few decades is beyond dispute. Some of this work, both in biographies and monographs, is of a high standard of scholarship combined with an original and imaginative approach. Even so, perhaps the very rapidity with which our picture has changed has brought its own problems. The key phrases mentioned above are in danger of being regarded by some scholars as the indispensable terminology of an already hallowed and immutable historiographical tradition. It is sometimes expected that the ideology of queenship should now always be discussed within established parameters, using a set range of concepts and a set terminology.
With this I would take serious issue. It is a view which is both rigid and inhibiting. If we reach too automatically for the familiar terms in the current ideology we are in danger of missing other connections, other patterns, other forms and above all of missing that vital principle of particularity - the distinctive quality of an event, a situation, a personal relationship - which it must always be a prime concern of the historian to detect. A set of readily accessible terms and concepts can deter one from the ultimate effort of penetration of the evidence.
A basically ideological approach can occasionally lead one to assume the existence of relevant evidence, whether it is there or not. The reviewer suggests that 'a discussion of contemporaries' reactions to Eleanor's appointment as regent, and the information this reveals about their perceptions regarding the boundaries of queenship, would also have been useful here'. Yes indeed, if there had been any such evidence, but it so happens that there is none.
To illustrate my critical view of the over-use of some current terms, may I examine two to which the reviewer has drawn particular attention: 'female networking ' and 'gender'. First, female networking, which is felt to require specific discussion. The reviewer cited as one example the relationship between Queen Eleanor and her sister Margaret queen of France. This close supportive friendship between the two sisters was very important politically over a long period of time, as I hope I made clear, but it is not in my view helpfully identified as a network, let alone 'an informal feminine avenue to power', of which neither woman in fact had need. This distorts their aim and the nature of their relationship, which was openly acknowledged and well understood. It was used to advantage on many occasions by Henry III, who himself had a close collaborative relationship with Queen Margaret, and it was paralleled by the equally close, although different collaboration of Eleanor of Provence with her uncle Peter of Savoy, or with the king's clerk John Mansel. Another glimpse of a network is thought to be caught in the negotiations between the queen, Amice dowager countess of Devon, and Isabella de Forz over arrangements for the marriage of the Lord Edmund to the heiress Aveline de Forz. This again is a strange 'network' since Isabella and Amice were mutually hostile on so many issues, both personal and political, and I imagine that what was afoot was some hard bargaining. A third example is the presence in Paris in 1254 of Beatrice of Savoy and her four daughters. It is suggested that I here fail to develop 'the insight which it provides into the role of royal and aristocratic women as both symbols and agents for reconciliation, as peaceweavers who crossed cultural and political divides'. Let us be cautious. Certainly Eleanor and Margaret wanted improved relations between their husbands, but again we must be wary of seeing female networks. This was essentially a family grouping, with Thomas of Savoy also in a prominent role. If there was a pre-eminent 'peaceweaver' at Paris in 1254 it was Louis IX, and one of his trickiest problems was to cope with the sharp antagonism of Beatrice of Savoy towards her son in law Charles of Anjou. She was one of this 'network; another was her daughter Beatrice, who it seems remained loyal to her husband in his many clashes with her mother. The conception of 'female networking' was no doubt a striking and illuminating metaphor in its initial application, but it seems frankly unhistorical to apply it too widely. If one sees a network wherever two or more women are spotted together, the term loses all significance. Peter Coss has very recently given a timely warning against seeing purely female networks in every nook and cranny (The Lady in Medieval England, 1000-1500,169-73), and has stressed the mixed character of many cultural and religious groupings of the later Middle Ages. His implicit plea for greater openness in approaching the evidence is one which I would whole-heartedly endorse. The one genuine network which I felt I detected in the life of Eleanor of Provence was the informal group of aristocratic women whose religious life around 1250 may have owed much to the spiritual direction of the Franciscan Thomas of Hales (with helpful book-lending by Matthew Paris). However, their aim was not power; it was salvation (not gender-specific as far as we know).
What then of my failure to discuss gender in its relation to queenship? I do not use the word itself, partly because I believe that it has suffered greatly from overuse. That does not mean that I under-rate its significance. Clearly gender distinctions are deeply implicated in many of the facets of queenship which the reviewer mentions, and to which I give detailed attention, the distinction between kingship and queenship itself for example, the ultimate control of the queen's resources by her husband, and the distinctive relations of king and queen with the community. Again, my whole investigation of Eleanor of Provence's life depends on the basic process of a woman's lifecycle, but it is entirely possible to discuss marriage, child-bearing, marital relations and widowhood without labouring the point that all this stems from the plain fact of 'gender'.
I open my book with the marriage of Eleanor of Provence to Henry III on 14 January 1236, and describe it as the most significant single event of her life. Admittedly the context in which I have chosen to place it is not a discussion of gender as an abstract construct, but I doubt whether any reader could have missed the point. The reviewer suggests that I should have followed an approach 'which would have allowed me to consider more fully what Eleanor of Provence's life and career reveal about the experience of being female in thirteenth-century England'. With respect, I must explain that what I was trying to penetrate was some glimmering of the experience of Eleanor of Provence herself, a woman, a mother, and a queen. That experience was very far from being typical. She played a key role in a period of political turmoil in England and the background to her life was one of the most remarkable and creative periods of Western European history. Her experience was unique and the setting rich and complex. Let us not lose sight of either the complexity or the particularity.
I could have written a very different book about Eleanor of Provence, but my aim above all was to place this remarkable woman in the context of mainstream thirteenth-century political and cultural history, and for this I made certain decisions over style and method which I realised would be controversial but which I believe to be academically valid.
On two other points I must make very brief comment. The explanation for the brevity of the final chapter, of which I am very conscious, is given in the Preface. Finally, I wrote that it was conceivable that Eleanor held back from the bloody slaughter that would have followed an invasion in 1264, not that she was 'anxious' to avoid it; I am afraid that is too strong, and the point is of some importance.